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The Ramayana Ballet (Yogyakarta, Indonesia, December 16, 2010)

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Despite not being particularly religious, I picked up the basics of Christianity as I made my way through the public schools, along with a bit of knowledge about Judaism and Islam. Similarly, I learned about Shinto, Buddhism and Confusionism--the three major Japanese religious influences--as part of my undergraduate studies. But despite having been part of a Hindu wedding ceremony (in which I swore vows in a language I don't understand, and to this day have no idea what I swore to do), it wasn't until we went on this trip that I managed to learn much at all about Hinduism. 

Making our way through Asia opened my eyes to the prodigious influence of the Hindu religion on cultures outside India. [1] By the time we set foot in Delhi, we had already visited Hindu religious sites in Indonesia, Cambodia, and Thailand. Thankfully, Pallavi had suggested that we go to the Ramayana Ballet in Yogyakarta, which gave me at least some grounding in one of the major works of the Hindu religion before we made our way further.

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Lord Rama and Leksmana comfort a fallen Jatayu

Most evenings, the Ramayana Ballet takes place in an open air amphitheater with a view of the Prambanan temple in the background. Sadly, it was raining when we attended the performance, and we had to watch inside a smaller, covered venue. The cheap seats were filled with what looked like three or four school groups, while a procession of dignitaries grabbed a few rows of reserved "first class" seating in front of us. ("First class" seating isn't terribly expensive--much less than $20, as I recall--and provides only a slightly better view, but it is much easier to listen to the performance if you aren't surrounded by fidgeting elementary students.)

The ballet itself covers only part of the story of the Ramayana, skipping several chapters here and there. It starts with the courtship and wedding of Lord Rama to Shinta, and does not really make clear (to non-Indonesian speakers) why Lord Rama's party is traveling through the forest in the next act. The rest of the story is fairly accessible, however: Shinta is kidnapped by the Demon King Rahwana, and Lord Rama sets out to recover his wife, with his trusty sidekick Leksmana. Along the way the pair are assisted by noble birds and goofy monkeys, while fighting giants and demons. (Discover Indonesia has a good summary of the entire story.)

Each set of characters has a slightly different style of dance: Jatayu the bird swoops gracefully across the stage, while Hanuman the monkey indulges in rolls, pratfalls and other bits of light comic relief. Rahwana manages to chew scenery without ever speaking, a perfect roll for a more-portly-than-normal dancer. Normally, I am not a big fan of classical dance, as I find it repetitive, but the movements in this ballet were varied enough to maintain my interest. Indeed, I was fascinated by the extravagance of the costumes and the ability of the performers to dance in them without mishap (with the exception of a demon who temporarily lost his wig of unkempt hair during a fall).

Although the story is Hindu, like any tale that has traveled the ballet picks up bits of local flavor along the way. For instance, fighting characters such as Lord Rama tend to carry kris, the curved blades common in Indonesian history but rare in India. Overall, the ballet provides a basic understanding of the story that shows up again and again on temple walls and in palace decorations throughout Asia. I'm thankful that I had this opportunity early in the trip.


Ramayana Ballet

[1] This should not have been such a surprise. One of my favorite temples in Kyoto, the Sanjousangendou, contains a set of twenty-eight statues that have a strong Hindu influence, carried to Japan along with Buddhism.

As an aside, when Pallavi and I came across this book at Virgin Records in New York a few weeks before our wedding, I considered buying it for my parents as a cute and quick basic guide. I really should have picked up a copy for myself.

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